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End of FBI investigation prompts fresh doubts about Clinton's honesty

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses the The National Education Association (NEA) Representative Assembly in Washington D.C., Tuesday, July 5, 2016. On Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey said the FBI will not recommend criminal charges in its investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

The director of the FBI spent about 15 minutes on national television on Tuesday morning dismantling many of the claims Hillary Clinton has made in defense of her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

Director James Comey did not outright accuse the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee of lying, but he did lay out evidence directly contradicting her campaign's assertions that none of her emails contained classified information and that all work-related emails were turned over to the State Department.

The good news for the Clinton campaign was that the FBI is not recommending criminal charges in connection with the investigation. The bad news was that Comey handed voters several new reasons not to trust a candidate whose biggest weakness may be that she is not seen as honest.

The case is being referred to the Justice Department, where Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced she will adhere to the recommendations of career investigators and prosecutors. Clinton will now try to move forward, but Republicans are already using Comey's words in an effort to tear down her credibility.

According to John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University, the apparent resolution of the email investigation will reinforce existing narratives for both Clinton's supporters and critics.

"On the one hand," he explained, "you have the Clinton supporters who believe that she's been subject to overzealous and unfair scrutiny pretty much throughout her career but especially in this case...On the other side, you have the Clinton detractors who will say this is a classic example of the Clintons operating on the fringes of propriety."

Even if the specter of criminal indictment no longer looms over Clinton's head, Comey's statement does present new challenges for her campaign. Her staff has only issued a brief comment at this point, but an honest response to the more specific and pointed questions that will inevitably come could mitigate the damage.

"Some acknowledgement on her part of poor judgment and accountability will probably help her cause in the long run," Carroll said.

With Clinton already pouring millions of dollars into swing state ads to boost her near-record unfavorable ratings, Tuesday's announcement represents a step backward for her.

"This kind of public dressing down only reinforces the suspicions and mistrust that surround Clinton, and really prevents her from making any real progress in turning that around," Carroll said.

Republicans see the revelations in Comey's press conference as further proof that Clinton cannot be trusted.

"It was devastating," said Brian Fraley, a veteran Republican strategist and owner of Edge Messaging. "First of all, he did a live statement. He could have just issued a press release."

"Her transgressions were significant and the live press conference was ominous. Second, he refutes many of the arguments Clinton has made over the past year."

According to Fraley, Comey's conclusion that laws may have been violated but a reasonable prosecutor would not pursue a case is far from an exoneration of Clinton.

"He said he's not bringing charges, but he did not proclaim her innocence," Fraley said. "He called her extremely careless. You can't walk that back."

Unsurprisingly, some Democrats have a different perspective.

"I actually think in the grand scheme of things it was helpful," said Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist Scott Ferson. "Anything that would have seemed like there were special favors or not a thorough investigation would have kept the story going."

If the FBI had offered a less transparent statement about declining to recommend charges, it could have generated further doubts about how serious and nonpartisan the investigation really was.

"The FBI comes out looking favorable in this and the investigation looks legitimate," Ferson said.

However, he suggested that the Clinton campaign's reaction to the whole email controversy has highlighted a serious weakness, which is "paranoia." Like their claims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" in the 1990s, the Clintons tend to fall back on conspiracy theories when under attack and that can create more problems than it solves.

The Comey press conference created a somewhat awkward juxtaposition with President Obama boarding Air Force One with Clinton to campaign with her for the first time. The harsh criticism of Clinton's judgment by Comey came hours before the president extolled her virtues at a campaign rally.

"It is one thing when your political opponents call you extremely careless," Fraley said. "It's another when the head of the FBI and a member of your party's administration does."

With voters' opinion of Clinton's honesty already sinking before the FBI director publicly contradicted many of her claims about the email investigation, taking the stage with Obama Tuesday and Vice President Joe Biden later this week may lend her an air of credibility.

They might mostly be preaching to the choir, though.

"They may prove beneficial in terms of transferring some of their popularity and credibility over to Clinton," Carroll said, "but I think they're going to be most effective with the true believers, and those aren't the people Clinton has to turn."

Given speculation that Biden was the likely replacement on the ticket in the event that Clinton was indicted, his support could be especially valuable.

"Appearing with Biden helps more," Fraley said. "Because the vice president is seen by many as waiting in the bullpen to come in if the starter falters. She needs Biden now more than ever."

As politically damaging as Comey's assessment of Clinton's behavior could be, experts are skeptical that presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump's campaign will effectively capitalize on it.

While all agree that video of Comey calling Clinton "careless" and listing the ways in which she endangered national security would make excellent fodder for ads, Trump has so far shown little interest in airing ads.

"The extreme carelessness, the transmission of emails that were classified, the absence of certain work-related emails, and then the possibility that the server could have been hacked," Carroll said, "all of that is terrific raw material for Trump attack ads if he actually had any money to run ads."

He also questioned Trump's initial reaction, which was to compare Clinton's behavior to that of General David Petraeus, who was prosecuted for knowingly sharing classified information with his biographer. In addition to the differences in the facts of the two cases, Carroll argued that questioning the integrity of the FBI investigation by calling it "rigged" is not the best strategy.

Ferson agreed, pointing to the forceful statement by House Speaker Paul Ryan as a more effective response.

"Even Donald Trump's attacks on Hillary Clinton seem to be mainly about himself," he said. It may have been better to follow Ryan's lead and keep the focus on Clinton's misdeeds.

Fraley expects the news will benefit Trump in the short-term and help reunite the Republican Party.

"Establishment holdouts will begin to coalesce around the presumptive nominee as they smell blood in the water surrounding the Clinton camp," he said.

However, he warned that Trump has shown a proclivity for saying or tweeting offensive things fairly regularly. A tweet from Trump's account that generated widespread accusations of anti-Semitism seemed to overshadow Clinton's meeting with the FBI over the weekend.

"It's only a matter of time before Trump again shoots himself in the foot with the next obnoxious and vulgar act or tweet," Fraley said. "Her sins don't wash away his."

With both candidates scoring terribly in both likability and trustworthiness, more voters than ever seem to view this election as a choice of the lesser of two evils.

"The playing field is ripe for a credible third party alternative to emerge," Fraley said. In their terrible poll numbers, he sees an opening for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson or someone else to come forward and win enough votes to stop Trump or Clinton from securing 270 electoral votes.

The percentage of voters who trust Clinton is hovering around 30 percent in some polls, but Ferson believes she may already be also low as she can get.

"At some point, your numbers bottom out," Ferson said. "They're not going to get worse, but I think they get better."

He pointed to the way President Bill Clinton's poll numbers rebounded after he survived being impeached in the 1990s as proof that it can be done.

Hobbled as Hillary Clinton may be by Comey's words, the closure of the investigation will represent the settling of the last remaining issue that could have completely derailed her campaign. Depending on how she handles the aftermath, she now has an opportunity to begin to recover and win back at least some voters' trust.

"Finally, these things either destroy you, or they end," Ferson said. "And this one is ending."

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